Driving parks led to the city’s heyday of harness racing

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I wrote about the dying American Girl Horse at Elmira Harness Park in a Star-Gazette article dated April 1, 2015. In addition, Jim Hare has written about Wilcox and Maple Avenue driving fleets.

I recently acquired a new photograph in my collection, so I want to add more to the subject.

To recap a bit: Elmira has had three driving fleets in its history. A “hitch yard” was an area with a race track for harness racing.

The Elmira Daily Advertiser reported that on May 17, 1867, Elmira opened her first car park on the property of Dr. E. Eldridge on the south bank of the river, along what is now Hudson Street. Its main driving force was Colonel Fortis Wilcox, former owner of the Delevan House Hotel in Elmira.

Wilcox spent many months laying the groundwork and designing a driving fleet. He created an “elegant and recreational resort” place. Wilcox also added a hotel – a place where “pleasure riders can rest”. It was a unique wooden structure.

A grand opening took place on May 29 with a cavalcade of horses led by young stallion Henry Clay. Then comes a show of 4-year-old children, followed by a presentation of mares, horses and stallions of all ages. Finally, a draw included horses of all ages. Admission was 25 cents for men; the ladies were free.

Eight years later, in 1875, a charter was amended in Albany for Elmira’s second driving fleet, this time at Eldridge Park. I have a new photo of this park. Workers built grandstands and refreshments just east of Grand Central Avenue, now known as Lake Welmer, or more affectionately “the swamp.” A luxury hotel has also graced the property. Its proximity to the New York State Fairgrounds (today’s county fairground) was also a big draw. Yes, Elmira hosted the New York State Fair nine times between 1855 and 1889.

In August 1875, all the buildings were finished, except for a few finishing touches on the gallery.

On September 23, 1875, the Daily Advertiser reported that the park had “a magnificent new half-mile track, even larger than the Rochester track, with splendid stretches and easy turns, with the most spacious stables. for horses. The car park was built by a company of wealthy and sporty citizens of Elmira. It has been provided with a first-rate hotel and a grandstand. “

The fleet opened during the New York State Fair, and Elmira streetcars ran directly to each from downtown every 15 minutes. From what I can tell, the state fair was more like a trade show today. Many local businesses showcased their products. Companies such as JM Robinson showed furniture, Simon Sayles & Co. with their roasted coffee, Greener’s showed their grand pianos, and Smith & Lawrence showed their candy. The other stalls were frames, dry goods, saddles and equipment. The most popular booth at the fair was the Billing and Brooks burglar alarms.

It was estimated that there were 20,000 visitors to Elmira on September 30, 1875.

The park’s grand opening received a lot of press the week before. Fifty-one horses came from all over the United States and were scheduled to race this weekend, including the unfortunate American Girl, who sadly died in a race on October 2.

There were a lot of fast horses locally, but the popularity of racing declined quite quickly. The last official race at Eldridge Park took place around 1880, five years after it opened. This track was used in 1883 when Buffalo Bill presented his Wild West show to Elmira at the New York State Fair.

The land became a swamp after the abandonment of the racetrack and had turned into a paradise for gypsies and squatters. Today, a paved path leads from Eldridge Park to Lake Street, home to turtles, herons, kingfishers and muskrats. At the halfway point, visitors can take the northern path with the remains of the Chemung Canal.

The Third Driving Park – Maple Avenue Driving Park (now Dunn Field) opened in 1886 and lasted until 1910. Please see Article by Jim Hare in the Star-Gazette of June 28, 2020 for more information.

Diane Janowski is the historian of the city of Elmira. His column appears monthly.

More history:Why Elmira was called the Queen City in 1851 by travel writer William MacLeod

More history:The suspect in the murder of Elmira police chief in 1915 was never arrested after several false leads

After:Former Elmira High Hoops Distances From Transfer Of Kiara Fisher To Marist Official

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